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A long-awaited resolution to a surprisingly contentious issue…

November 18, 2022, 10:00 AM

Sometimes, when it comes to elections, the ones that we lock onto most are little local issues.  For me, it was the courthouse issue in Augusta County, Virginia.  For those not familiar, Augusta County is the area where I grew up, and the courthouse is located in Staunton.  That means, due to all cities’ being independent from counties in Virginia, the Augusta County courthouse is technically located outside of the county (though that is not unique to Augusta County by any means).  As I understand it, for quite some time, Augusta County has been short on space for its courts, and has been looking to replace its courthouse with something bigger and more modern.  Then to add another wrinkle to this, the rest of the Augusta County government had moved out to nearby Verona, located just north of Staunton, long ago.  When we moved to the area in 1992, the Augusta County Government Center was a relatively new building in Verona, and since then, a regional jail has been built in Verona, the sheriff’s office moved to Verona, and the school system headquarters moved to Verona (though the schools moved from elsewhere in the county, not from Staunton).  The only thing left in Staunton was the courts.  The kicker there was that the location of the courthouse determined what town was the county seat, and moving the county seat required a referendum to be placed before the voters.  And as you know, voters can be an odd bunch.  Sometimes they perform the way you want or expect them to, but sometimes they don’t.  And generally speaking, some things will never pass by referendum.  If you’re raising taxes, for example, it will fail when taken to the voters, because in all fairness, who is going to vote to raise their own taxes?

The problem with the courthouse in Augusta County has been longstanding.  The Augusta County courthouse had fallen below state standards for court facilities some time ago, and because of that, the county had been given a “show cause” order to improve the courts.  County leaders also stated that they were unable to renovate their existing court facilities to meet current state standards.  Thus it was necessary to build a new courthouse.

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And the outer walls begin to fall…

November 3, 2022, 8:09 AM

On October 26, Elyse and I took a one-day trip down to Augusta County in order to change to the “permanent temporary solution” for my car problem, i.e. Mom’s Scion xB, following the HR-V’s untimely demise in an accident two and a half weeks prior.  I don’t necessarily like doing these sorts of trips in a single day because it’s a lot of driving and I’m not 25 anymore, but that’s all I had time for based on my schedule.  I also couldn’t really postpone this trip, because things were going to get a bit more expensive for me if I didn’t do this trip when I did.  For those not familiar, when you have Progressive for your insurance and your car is totaled, your rental coverage ends three days after you are notified of your car’s total loss.  That notification occurred while Elyse and I were on a weeklong trip to Tennessee, and so Progressive, taking my length of time as a customer (18 years!) into consideration, they extended my coverage until the day after we got back from our trip.  Then Enterprise Rent-A-Car would let me pay the insurance rate for my rental for another week beyond that, after which I would have to pay the (much higher) retail rate.  My original plan was to switch cars on the way back home, returning the rental car in Staunton, and then doing the last leg of the return trip in Mom’s car.  As the trip continued on, though, I soon realized that we would be cutting it far too close with that plan, considering that it was also our Roanoke day, so I opted to postpone the car swap by a week and do the visit with my parents on the way home as we had planned to do it prior to the accident, i.e. it would just be a visit.  So the primary focus of this trip was just to swap cars, on the day that the retail rate would have gone into effect, i.e. if you don’t return this car right now, you will be paying a lot more for it going forward.  The addition of this new trip down also changed the plans for the last day of the Tennessee trip.  Since there would now be an extra trip down to Staunton, I skipped a Staunton Mall update that I had planned for the return trip to save time, since I would be going right there the following week.

For this particular Staunton Mall visit, noting the pace of the progress that I had observed in June, August, and September, I already had a decent idea about what to expect.  I figured that by my next visit, the remainder of the mall’s interior would be gone, and they would probably then start working on demolishing the exterior walls, which had remained mostly intact up to this point, which meant that Staunton Mall still largely looked like Staunton Mall from the road during most of the demolition up to that point.  I also knew that I didn’t have much time on site this time around, and that the demolition crew would more than likely be on the property.  Therefore, this was to be a high-level visit solely by drone, flown from well above the property where I could see my vehicle around the entire mall without having to reposition myself, and staying well clear of the demolition crew, since I didn’t want to get in their way at all, and I also didn’t have any time to discuss any special access with them, as I did in September to photograph what remained of the mall’s interior.  All of that said, I made a quick ten-minute flight where I flew from the Orchard Hill Square shopping center across the street, and made a pass across the front of the mall, looped around the entire property, and then dipped down near the Belk entrance where there were no workers present for a momentary peek at that area before returning to the launch site.

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A little adventure in Virginia, mostly in the woods…

October 6, 2022, 8:06 AM

From September 13-15, Elyse and I had a little weekend adventure in Virginia, where we went down to Augusta County stayed in Staunton like we usually do.  This one was a little different than most because it was partly a solo adventure.  Prior to this trip, Elyse had been down in Roanoke attending to business related to a nonprofit that she volunteers with, so she traveled up from there on Amtrak, and we met up in Charlottesville.  My original plan was to go the easterly route down, taking I-95 to Fredericksburg and then taking Route 3, Route 20, US 15, and a few other routes that would take me through Locust Grove, Orange, and Gordonsville.  However, at the last minute, I had a change of heart, deciding that (A) I didn’t feel like wading through traffic on the Beltway or 95, (B) that easterly track would get me to Charlottesville far too early, meaning that I would have to kill time before Elyse would arrive, and (C) I had ideas that necessitated taking other routes.  So I took the westernmost route, which primarily utilizes I-81, and took the “alternate” version of that, which goes through Harpers Ferry and Charles Town in West Virginia via US 340, and then taking Route 7 to meet I-81 in Winchester.  Yes, I’m going north to head south, but the distance and time for going out to Harpers Ferry is almost the same as it is to go through Northern Virginia on I-66, so it works.

My first point of interest was a relatively obscure sign in the middle of a field in Verona:


Image: Google Street View

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Thirty years ago, we arrived…

September 5, 2022, 6:10 PM

August 31, 2022 marked 30 years from the day that my family came to Virginia, after having lived in Arkansas for the previous seven and a half years.  Thirty years is a little less than three quarters of my life thus far.  It just seems so weird to think about it that way.  But it really does mark the beginning of an era in my life, because unlike more recent moves, the move from Arkansas to Virginia was a clean separation, leaving a lot of elements of my life behind and starting new in Virginia, especially in those pre-Internet days, when there was no social media to keep in contact with everyone.  Additionally, having no family out there, I have not been back since we left.  The moves since then were not quite as clean of a break as the move from Arkansas was.  My 2007 move to Maryland was only me, and my parents stayed where they were.  Plus, as it’s only a few hours away, I can go down there almost any time I want, including down and back in the same day.  Then my 2017 move was local, so nothing else changed in my life other than the location of my house, and my commute to work.  I just upgraded my living situation, and that was it.

The move to Virginia was the culmination of something that was a long time coming.  My parents never really wanted to live in Arkansas to begin with, but it was a good career move for Dad with Scott Nonwovens, so they begrudgingly did it, and so we left New Jersey for Arkansas in February 1985.  I remember Mom’s mentioning a number of times early on about wanting to move back to New Jersey.  And in all fairness, that was understandable.  Dad had something to do in Rogers, as he was the one with the job.  Mom didn’t know anyone, and her primary role at that time was to take care of a newborn and a preschooler.  She had left everyone she knew when we left New Jersey, and it took a while to meet people and form new relationships, though that improved once Mom got a job at the Walton Life Fitness Center in Bentonville.  We also didn’t get along with our next door neighbors on one side, as their kids were out of control.  That ultimately led to something of a falling out.  We put slats in our existing fence on that side so that we wouldn’t have to see them when we were in the backyard, and they built an entirely new spite fence on their side so that they wouldn’t have to see us.  The neighbors on the other side were a retired couple, and they were awesome.

Meanwhile, the education situation in Rogers had really come to a head.  I had just completed fifth grade, which was my worst year from kindergarten through high school, without question, and that had followed third and fourth grade years that were pretty rough as well.  My parents had gone about as far as they could with the school system, and no one was looking forward to another year at Bonnie Grimes Elementary.  I was also hearing all kinds of rumblings at the time from my parents about changes afoot.  One was that we would not be returning to Grimes Elementary again, and I was also hearing things about moving, which made me think that something big and life-changing was coming, but nothing concrete as of yet.  It had been rumored that Scott had wanted to transfer my father to their corporate office in Philadelphia, and so it seemed like we would probably be moving back to New Jersey, as Mom had wanted all along.  I didn’t want to move, because unlike my parents, Rogers was pretty much all that I knew, and I was used to it.

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An unexpected Staunton Mall update…

August 13, 2022, 10:00 AM

On Thursday, August 11, 2022, I made what you might call an unexpected trip down to Augusta County.  Since the previous Sunday, Elyse had been down in Roanoke attending to some business related to a nonprofit that she is involved with, and was supposed to come back on Wednesday evening via Amtrak.  However, due to some heavy thunderstorms across Virginia that day, her Amtrak train was significantly delayed due to flooding and fallen trees, which meant that she only got as far as Charlottesville before delays on top of more delays meant that she would not arrive in Washington for many hours.  She ended up getting off the train in Charlottesville, and stayed overnight at my parents’ house.  That was a strange thing, with Elyse sending me photos from my old bedroom and all, while I was at home in Maryland.  Then since I was off on Thursday, I ended up coming down there to scoop her up and bring her home.  I figured that this was a good excuse for a road trip, so I gathered up my DSLR and my drone and hit the road.  We did a lot of stuff on this one-day trip, including spending quality time with the parents, but photographically, my main push was to get another update for Staunton Mall, after I had previously given an update in June.

Since my last visit, the mall has continued to be hollowed out.  When I visited in June, the interior walls were mostly demolished, with only the exterior walls remaining, from JCPenney to just past the Peebles.  From the end of Peebles to Montgomery Ward was where most of the demolition was occurring, as the roof was off of the mall corridor, while the stores were mostly still there.  The Wards building and the Belk wing were still mostly intact.  Now, the Wards building has been hollowed out to the exterior walls, as has the Belk wing up to the mall entrance next to Family Barber & Beauty.  I imagine that there is a reason behind the way that they’re doing this, demolishing the interior while leaving the exterior mostly intact until the end, but I don’t know what the reason is.

I followed the same process that I did before when it came to documenting the demolition of Staunton Mall.  I first drove around the property in order to figure out what was worth checking out, and then took the drone up for some flights near the areas that I wanted to photograph.  After all, why send my soft, vulnerable little body in there where things are unstable and could fall on me, when I can send a robot in my place and live vicariously through its eyes, while remaining in a place of safety at all times.  In this case, I parked in front of Boston Beanery to check out the south end of the mall, and then repositioned in front of Family Barber & Beauty to do the north end of the mall.

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Staunton Mall demolition update…

June 10, 2022, 3:15 PM

This past weekend, while Elyse and I were on a trip down to Staunton, we visited Staunton Mall in order to check up on it to see how its redevelopment was going.  You may recall that Staunton Mall had been on a long, slow decline before finally closing in December 2020I published a photo set about the mall based on my final visit, documenting as much about the mall as I could so that it could be remembered, and including older photos from years past.  My last update was from July, and covered the fencing off of the mall building (sans Belk, which remains open), and asbestos abatement in some of the anchor spaces.

Now, demolition has begun in earnest, and a little more than half of the mall is gone.  Interestingly enough, the mall is being demolished from the inside out, as the interior walls and roof have, in large part, been demolished, but the exterior walls, as well as the spaces closest to those exterior walls, are mostly still intact and recognizable.  I have no idea why they’re doing it this way.  I would have expected the exterior walls to come down along with the rest of everything, as they’re clearly working from south to north.  The JCPenney end of the mall is mostly gone except for the exterior walls, while the section between the food court and Wards is only partly demolished, and the 1980s expansion is, for the most part, still intact.  And, of course, Belk remains open for business.

We visited the mall twice: once for Elyse, and once for me.  In Elyse’s case, she was going for something very specific: the panel in the elevator at the JCPenney store.  For those not familiar, Staunton Mall was a one-level facility, however, the JCPenney store had a very small upper level on the west side of the building, which housed the store’s administrative offices.  It’s why the front side of the store was so much taller than the rest.  Elyse rode this elevator for the first time in 2016, and again in 2020 just before the store closed.

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A fence appears around Staunton Mall…

July 17, 2021, 8:44 AM

While Elyse and I were on that trip to Staunton that I discussed earlier, we stopped by Staunton Mall to check in on the progress there.  It would appear that the redevelopment plans for Staunton Mall are for real, because asbestos abatement appears to be happening in a few places, and a perimeter has been established around the building in preparation for demolition.  Recall that I declared Staunton Mall to be a dead mall back in 2009, but it took until 2020 for the mall to finally close.  That fence around the entire mall building, save for Belk, is a major step towards demolition and redevelopment.

Fencing in front of the former Wills/Books-A-Million store.
Fencing in front of the former Wills/Books-A-Million store.

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Paying my last respects to Staunton Mall…

December 14, 2020, 9:00 AM

On a recent trip to Augusta County, Elyse and I stopped over at Staunton Mall to pay our last respects to the place.  For those not familiar, Staunton Mall recently changed owners, and in late November, the new owners gave all of the remaining tenants a 30-day notice to vacate, except for Belk.  The last day of operation for Staunton Mall will be December 24.  So we stopped in and documented the place fairly extensively.  Before I get started, please note that this Journal entry will be a very high-level look at the mall.  I took over 1,200 photos of the interior and exterior of the mall, including at least one photo of every single storefront, and I’m going to give the place a more complete treatment as a photo set for Life and Times.  But this ought to hold everyone for now, because the more complete treatment is going to take a while to put together.

The thing about photographing retail settings is that stores typically don’t like it when you photograph in their facilities.  The usual reason cited is to protect trade secrets, which is usually bunk, because, as I understand it, a company has to put actual effort into keeping trade secrets a secret.  If it is in plain view of the public, then it is not a trade secret.  But that doesn’t stop stores from chasing off photographers.  After all, it is private property, and they can choose to exclude whatever activities that they want.  For my purposes, it just means that I have to be a bit more stealthy when I photograph, and shoot with my phone rather than with the big camera.  The way that I typically operate when I do this is to go from lower risk to higher risk as far as getting caught goes.  After all, once a place gets wise to me, the photo shoot is over, because they’ll never leave me alone again as long as I remain there.  In this case, since I had the drone, I considered the aerial photography to be the least risky as far as getting caught goes, since I could accomplish that mostly from off of the property.  Then after I finished flying around the mall, I photographed the exterior from the car with my real camera.  Then I went inside the mall and did my documentation of the interior with my phone.  I suspected that I wouldn’t have any issues with security personnel based on reports from others that there were no security people to begin with, and I was pleased that this ended up remaining the case.  I’ve seen so many cases where stores and/or entire shopping centers are closing, and employees still get on people about photography.  I can’t help in those cases but to think, why do you still care?  After all, the people in question are losing their jobs soon, and so they’re continuing to defend their employer because… why?  No matter what you do, at the end of the day, you’re still losing your job.  So why are you still loyal to and defending a company that clearly has no loyalty to you?  It doesn’t make sense to me.

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Flying over the Shenandoah Valley with a drone…

October 25, 2020, 10:45 PM

Elyse and I recently made a trip down to Augusta County to see my parents, and we both photographed a bunch of stuff with my drone while we were down there.  So all in all, we had a pretty productive time.  I have gotten pretty proficient in flying my drone around things, and I’ve gotten some nice photos.  The goal of the drone photography this time was to duplicate a lot of what I did in my earlier entry about the area in Microsoft Flight Simulator, but in real life.  All in all, I had a good time, and I liked the results, as I flew around Staunton, Waynesboro, Afton Mountain, and Stuarts Draft.

In Staunton, I first got aerials of the old DeJarnette Center, which is an abandoned children’s mental hospital that closed around 1996 in favor of a newer, more modern facility nearby.  If this place sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve photographed it before.  So here it is:

DeJarnette, viewed from the air

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Flying over the Shenandoah Valley…

August 27, 2020, 11:25 PM

Recently, Elyse got a copy of the new Microsoft Flight Simulator game, which, among other things, features real landscapes based on map data.  However, it’s not without its issues, since, if it doesn’t have good data for buildings and such, it attempts to fill in the gaps by rendering a building, taking a guess as to what kind of building it’s supposed to be.  When there is good building data, the buildings look correct, as is the case in much of Howard County, Maryland.  Down in Augusta County, that’s not the case, and most of the buildings are rendered by the game, doing its darndest to make a good guess.  To accomplish this evening’s field trip, Elyse dropped us at Eagle’s Nest Airport, which is a privately-owned airport just outside Waynesboro.  I didn’t have to fly the plane.  Rather, we left the plane on the runway, and just flew around with the camera.  I didn’t want to have to fly an airplane, after all.  I just wanted to have a little eye in the sky.  So from Eagle’s Nest, I quickly got my bearings, and made a beeline to Stuarts Draft.

First thing that I took a look at was my old middle school, Stuarts Draft Middle School:

Stuarts Draft Middle School in the flight simulator

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A Facebook comment should not bother me this much…

February 11, 2020, 11:11 AM

Recently, I commented on a post on the Facebook page for WHSV, the local ABC affiliate for Harrisonburg, Virginia, and got some unusual feedback.  The original post was for an article about Trump’s participation in the “March for Life“, an anti-choice demonstration held annually in DC on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.

Before I continue, though, it seems worthwhile to explain my stance on the matter of abortion.  My stance is that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  But ultimately, it’s not my call.  What other people do with their bodies is their business, and it doesn’t affect me.

I also believe that abortion is more or less a settled matter, but that it has value for the GOP as a campaign issue.  In other words, the Republican Party will talk a big game about it, but ultimately, no one is going to ban abortion.  Ever.  Why ban it and settle the matter decisively in your favor, when you can bring it up as a campaign issue every election cycle and raise money and get people to vote based on it?  To actually ban abortion would be to kill the golden goose, and also hand a massive fundraising opportunity to the Democrats.  Maybe I’m a bit cynical about the whole thing, but I imagine that if they were really going to act on that issue, they would have done it by now, during the various periods where the GOP has controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.  That they haven’t done that tells me that they are not interested in settling it.

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They couldn’t even get mad…

August 12, 2019, 10:17 AM

After the Journal entry where I spoke about my seventh grade year, which generated a lot of great discussion, mostly on Facebook, I thought I’d share an amusing moment from eighth grade.

Eighth grade was one of my best years in school.  I had a great group of teachers, and I had a much easier time with the kids.  Sure, some kids were still terrible, but not like seventh grade.  I didn’t get in trouble at all in eighth grade, except for one time in the middle of the second semester, when I got written up for something relatively minor, but which was entirely my fault.

To give some background, my mother has always enjoyed sharing information that she learns with me.  In the era of the Internet, I typically use it as a starting point to do my own research to turn up more information about it, but back then, with much more limited resources, I typically took it at face value, and was still happy to have learned something new, even if I couldn’t necessarily dive into it more deeply.  In this particular instance, what Mom shared was that men who wore boxer shorts had higher sperm counts than men who wore briefs.  Okay.  So 13-year-old me just learned an interesting new factoid, though I didn’t really understand the whole mechanism behind it (if you want to know, go look it up for yourself).  But in any case, I was a tad more knowledgeable than I was five minutes earlier, and that was awesome.

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In hindsight, sometimes I wonder if I might have had an easier time…

July 14, 2019, 12:20 PM

Sometimes I wonder if, in hindsight, I might have had an easier time in school if I had just beaten the crap out of a few kids.  Seriously.  I got picked on quite a bit, particularly in middle school. I got made fun of for my weight, I got made fun of for the way I walked (which I found out much later was due to overly tight calf muscles, which is remedied through stretching), and I got made fun of for my mannerisms.

I admit that I was a bit of an easy mark in middle school.  I wouldn’t fight back, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I was in a martial arts class at the time that emphasized never starting a fight.  Additionally, and more importantly, when students get into a fight in school, fault was typically assigned equally regardless of what happened, and so both students got suspended.  Thus even if you were not the one who initiated the fight and you were trying to get the other kid off of you, you were still getting suspended.  Since my parents had decided before I was born that I was going to college, getting suspended was viewed as the worst thing ever.  Recall the “you might as well wish you were dead” remark from when I got suspended in fourth grade.  We later found out after we moved to Virginia that the elementary school suspension wasn’t in my records.  Whether that was sloppy work on Mrs. Carmical’s part or what have you, I don’t know, but officially, it never happened.  However, getting suspended going forward was a no-go, because of the assumption that it would affect my ability to get into college.  As it turns out, that assumption was mistaken, because no college cares about what you did in middle school.  But for that mistaken assumption, I had a rough time.

In reading various discussions online, one thing that I saw over and over was that when the victims of bullying retaliated against their attackers, it generally put an end to it.  One story from online that stuck with me was where a girl who was being bullied walked by and jabbed a pair of scissors into her attacker’s back.  She got in some trouble, but the end result was that her bully now feared her.  Seemed like a good result.  She ended it.  And in a fight, if everyone is getting suspended, it really changes the dynamic of things.  With nothing to lose, why not inflict maximum damage?  Give the kid something to remember you by.  Bet that they won’t mess with you again after that.

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Renting out eight rooms…

September 30, 2017, 12:29 AM

So apparently, I spoke too soon when it came to the closure of The Inn at Afton.  You may recall that last month, I announced the closure of The Inn at Afton, based on a sign that said that the lobby and hotel were closed.  Elyse and I went down that way again on Wednesday, and one of our stops was to see how The Inn at Afton looked in the daylight after finally going out of business for good.  Much to our surprise, we found that the place was open again.  We stopped into room 211, which was being used as the lobby, and had a chat with the lady working inside.  As it turns out, the hotel is barely operational, with only eight rooms, all on the parking lot side, in service.  None of the rooms on the other side, which has a tremendous view of the piedmont, are in service.  I’m told that the remaining rooms have been stripped, and a walk past some of the first-floor rooms that are not in service seems to confirm this.  That means that out of 118 total rooms, 110 of them are out of service, presumably for being uninhabitable.  That’s an availability of 6.7%.  For that few rooms, it hardly seems worthwhile to remain open, but apparently, they do, likely out of habit.

Meanwhile, the room being used as the lobby smelled strongly of mold, and had visible mold and water damage.  Definitely an unhealthy environment.  We might have stuck around for longer and chatted with the very nice lady working there, but the mold smell was too much.  I imagine that the rooms that are still in service are just as bad, if they are willing to let the room that they’re using as a lobby become so bad.  Thank heavens for Orbit “Bubblemint” gum.  It got the mold taste out of my mouth.

So apparently, and much to my surprise, just when we thought that the book had closed on the operational history of the vintage businesses on Afton Mountain, there’s more to the Afton story to be told.

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The other shoe finally dropped on Afton Mountain…

August 18, 2017, 1:25 AM

On Wednesday, I was on a day trip down to Stuarts Draft and such with a few people.  On the whole, it was a fun time.  On the way out, we swung by Afton Mountain in order to give a quick, five-minute tour of the abandoned motels up there.  One pass across the lower properties, then up and across the front of The Inn at Afton.  The Inn at Afton was a lot darker than I might have expected, and I spotted a sign on the window of room 213, which, as we discovered in April, was being used as the lobby.  This is the sign:

"HOTEL CLOSED. LOBBY CLOSED. WILL REOPEN AT A LATER TIME!"

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Categories: Afton Mountain